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• "Jane Austen is the pinnacle to which all other authors aspire." --J.K. Rowling
• "Austen looks at her world with a cool, undressing gaze... she is a formidable opponent of hypocrisy and sentimentality." --Observer
About thiry years ago, Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation; and such of their acquaintances as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage. But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them. Miss Ward, at the end of half-a-dozen years, found herself obliged to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-in-law, with scarcely any private fortune, and Miss Frances fared yet worse. Miss Ward's match, indeed, when it came to the point, was not contemptible; Sir Thomas being happily able to give his friend an income in the living of Mansfield; and Mr. and Mrs. Norris began their career of conjugal felicity with very little less than a thousand a year. But Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connections, did it very thoroughly. She could hardly have made a more untoward choice. Sir Thomas Bertram had interest which, from principle as well as pride, from a general wish of doing right, and a desire of seeing all that were connectedwith him in situations of respectability, he would have been glad to exert for the advantage of Lady Bertram's sister; but her husband's profession was such as no interest could reach; and before he had time to devise any other method of assisting them, an absolute breach between the sisters had taken place. It was the natural result of the conduct of each party, and such as a very imprudent marriage almost always produces. To save herself from useless remonstrance, Mrs. Price never wrote to her family on the subject till actually married. Lady Bertram, who was a woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent, would have contented herself with merely giving up her sister, and thinking no more of the matter; but Mrs. Norris had a spirit of activity, which could not be satisfied till she had written a long and angry letter to Fanny, to point out the folly of her conduct, and threaten her with all its possible ill consequences. Mrs. Price, in her turn, was injured and angry; and an answer, which comprehended each sister in its bitterness, and bestowed such very disrespectful reflections on the pride of Sir Thomas, as Mrs. Norris could not possibly keep to herself, put an end to all intercourse between them for a considerable period.
Their homes were so distant, and the circles in which they moved so distinct, as almost to preclude the means of ever hearing of each other's existence during the eleven following years, or, at least, to make it very wonderful to Sir Thomas, that Mrs. Norris should ever have it in her power to tell them, as she now and then did, in an angry voice, that Fanny had got another child. By the end of eleven years, however, Mrs. Price could no longer afford to cherish pride or resentment, or to lose one connection that might possibly assist her. A large and still increasing family, an husband disabled for active service, but not the less equal to company and good liquor, and a very small income to supply their wants, made her eager to regain the friends she had so carelessly sacrificed; and she addressed Lady Bertram in a letter which spoke so much contrition and despondence, such a superfluity of children, and such a want of almost everything else, as could not but dispose them all to a reconciliation. She was preparing for her ninth lying-in; and after bewailing the circumstance, and imploring their countenance as sponsors to the expected child, she could not conceal how important she felt they might be to the future maintenance of the eight already in being. Her eldest was a boy of ten years old, a fine spirited fellow who longed to be out in the world; but what could she do? Was there any chance of his being hereafter useful to Sir Thomas in the concerns of his West Indian property? No situation would be beneath him; or what did Sir Thomas think of Woolwich? or how could a boy be sent out to the East?
The letter was not unproductive. It re-established peace and kindness. Sir Thomas sent friendly advice and professions, Lady Bertram dispatched money and baby-linen, and Mrs. Norris wrote the letters.
Such were its immediate effects, and within a twelvemonth a more important advantage to Mrs. Price resulted from it. Mrs. Norris was often observing to the others that she could not get her poor sister and her family out of her head, and that, much as they had all done for her, she seemed to be wanting to do more; and at length she could not but own it to be her wish that poor Mrs. Price should be relieved from the charge and expense of one child entirely out of her great number.
'What if they were among them to undertake the care of her eldest daughter, a girl now nine years old, of an age to require more attention than her poor mother could possibly give? The trouble and expense of it to them would be nothing, compared with the benevolence of the action.' Lady Bertram agreed with her instantly. 'I think we cannot do better,' said she; 'let us send for the child.'
1. Though it was very successful, Jane Austen deemed Pride and Prejudice, her second novel, 'rather too light.' As Carol Shields mentions in her Introduction, Austen hoped to address more serious issues in her next novel, Mansfield Park. Many readers and critics think Mansfield Park is Austen's most serious and most profound novel. How does it differ from Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice? How are her treatments of class, gender, relationships, and most especially, faith, more nuanced and more mature?
2. Describe the social positions of the three Ward sisters Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris, and Mrs. Price. How did they arrive at such different circumstances and how have their circumstances presumably affected their personalities? How do the sisters treat each other and how much of this is the result of their respective status?
3. As soon as Sir Thomas decides to accept responsibility for one of Mrs. Price's children, Fanny is put into an unusual position. Sir Bertram says, although she is to live with them, 'she is not a Miss Bertram . . . their rank, fortune, rights and expectations will always be different.' Describe the family's feelings for Fanny as the novel develops. How does the treatment of Fanny by Mrs. Norris and the Bertram sisters distinguish her from the rest of the children? How does Fanny feel about the Bertrams and how do her feelings change, especially for Sir Bertram and Edmund? Before her marriage, what changes take place that allow for her acceptance in the family?
4. Fanny Price inspires strong reactions in readers; she is cast by some as a dreary killjoy, and by others as an endearing, admirable heroine. Is this dichotomy Austen'sintention? Discuss the ways in which Fanny embodies both sides of this polarized debate. What is your opinion of her in relation to other well-known female protagonists of the day?
5. Mansfield Park was divided into three volumes, published separately. Why do you think Austen chose this structure, and how does it affect your reading of the book? Think about other writing that employs this structure to inform your response.
6. From the moment the idea is suggested, Edmund is against the staging of a play. Why is the play seen as inappropriate by both Edmund and Fanny? Why, once it is decided upon, does Edmund accept a part in the play, even though he would appear a hypocrite? How much of this license was taken because of the absence of Sir Thomas and how much was simply the influence of Tom? What is the significance of their choice of plays, Lover's Vows?
7. Describe the similarities and differences between the courtship of Edmund and Mary and that of Fanny and Henry. What are the stumbling blocks in these two courtships that cause them to fail? To what extent were the trials of these courtships responsible for Edmund's change of heart toward Fanny?